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A chatbot that enabled 9,500 young people to ask political candidates 15,000 questions during the six months before the 2017 French election.
Voxe is a civic technology company based in Paris, France, with the mission to empower people aged between 18-35 to participate in debates and discussions around important topics.
It started in 2012 when a group of friends decided to create a comparator tool to help the French public decide who to vote for during the French election that year. It was picked up and used by many national publications and reached 2 million citizens.
The team won €25,000 in 2013 to extend the election comparison tool pilot to 19 countries and 16 elections (including Brexit and the Italian referendum). Voxe has since received funding from Google, Open Society Foundations, the SNCF foundation, the Orange Digital Society and the European Commission for a range of other projects.
In 2015, it launched What The Voxe?!, a newsletter that analyses a particular law going through the French Parliament and breaks down the arguments for and against it. It got 5,000 subscribers in six months.
As well as creating civic tools, the team has also run ‘Voxetour’ – a three-week tour of France undertaken by 33 volunteers to meet 4,500 young people from across the country – and the ‘Voxe Academy, a series of debates held in schools, sports clubs and public spaces.
Voxe has five staff members, including designers and developers, and a group of around 50 volunteers that support its events and debates.
Voxe decided to create a chatbot because the comparator tool, while successful, had limitations (for example, politicians often used terms that people did not understand). They also felt the familiar format of the bot would better suit the discussion around politics.
The idea of the bot was shaped by the bi-monthly newsletter, ‘What the Voxe?!, which saw high numbers of people click through to fill in a petition, attend an event or donate to a cause. Its success made the team realise users wanted the opportunity to actively engage in the political process, which led them to the chatbot.
The bot began as a way to gather questions from Facebook users which would then be taken to the politicians to answer. The French primaries and citizen primaries were taking place in 2016 so the candidates were incentivised to work with Voxe.
30,000 people signed up to the bot in two months as a result of press coverage, particularly sites with a focus on civic tech, and general interest around the election.
During onboarding, the bot asks a series of optional questions: what is your gender, what city do you live in, do you study/ work/ unemployed, what topics are you most interested in (politics/ economics/ international relations/ society/ environment)? This data is used to give the team an overall sense of the users and the stories they’re interested in.
Users interact with the bot to pick the candidate they want to ask a question to, then write down their question and send it to the Voxe team. Over six months, 9,500 users asked 15,000 questions of the candidates.
Two staff members organised meetings with 18 candidates (including French presidential candidate Benoît Hamon) and the questions were posed to them via a Facebook Live broadcast in which one journalist would ask the questions and a social media producer would coordinate the stream. The videos with the candidates can be found here.
Of the 15,000 questions submitted, around a third were answered and sent back to the users who asked them via the bot.
The chatbot is GDPR compliant and the team takes precautions with the data collected. For example, information provided in the answers is never extracted from the database and there is a process of erasing user data if people request it.
After the election, people continued to sign up to the bot. Sign-ups went from 30,000 to 80,000 in the six months after the election. Voxe changed the purpose of the bot (see: What did they learn?) and now has more than 110,000 people subscribed.
Initially, chatbot users didn't believe the answers that were sent back to them in response to their questions were real. They believed Voxe staff members had made them up. That's when the team started doing Facebook Live videos to prove they had met the candidates in person.
Overall, the bot was a good way to engage the audience that Voxe targets. 73% of the 110k chatbot users are between 18 and 35 years old, with an even split between men and women. 60% are employed, 40% are students and 95% live in a town.
The bot succeeded in engaging users. There was an average of 53 interactions per unique user each month and 20% of users engaged in one of the calls-to-action (e.g. sign a petition, participate in a meeting).
Before the election, the team believed they would decommission the bot right after the election. However, the spike in new users after the result was announced, and the high engagement rate versus the newsletter and website visits encouraged them to keep it and repurpose it.
They are currently testing different formats, including a Saturday news quiz with links to stories the users may have missed during the week. Once a week, the team asks chatbot users a question about a newsworthy issue and then reveals the answers the following week. Sometimes these answers are turned into articles, such as this one about attitudes towards the Grand Debate.
Voxe is also testing a ‘superbot’ which will aim to give users a fresh perspective on a newsworthy topic by interviewing people and bringing the issue to life within the bot for people to engage with. For example, the ban on Roundup weedkiller and controversy about glyphosate are brought to life through a conversation with a vineyard farmer or a health worker that tests people who have glyphosate (FB link). At the end of the series of messages, chatbot users are asked if they have changed their mind: 60% of users have said they see the issue differently, 10% change their mind.
“We found out some people who use the chatbot want a simple take on politics but others are in high school or working but don’t have people they can discuss the news with.”
How would you improve it?
"I would like us to conceive the added value that we want the bot to bring to our users and stick to that instead of trying new things all the time and going in several directions. This would boost the retention of users since they would know from the beginning what they are signing up for.”
Lots of Hearken’s case studies speak to the idea of asking important and timely questions but check out this one on how a US radio station used 1,300 questions about homelessness to shape their coverage.
The Times of London experimented with a Facebook chatbot to burst users’ filter bubbles and get them to read more stories about other political parties
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